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John Constable

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The painter of summer.
Wivenhoe Park, in the National Gallery, Washington, was painted in the year Constable married.

Love & Knowledge

John Constable was not a natural-born genius. His effort to make himself a painter would entail years of unrelenting work, the consummation of love, and a daring, breathtaking gesture. He created beauty and something else that was very rare. He showed the beauty and integrity and worth of people and scenes and things close to the earth.

Born in 1776, Constable grew up exploring and sketching the Stour Valley, East Anglia, his boyhood home and the place now known as Constable Country. He was the fourth child (the number of famous Brits who would never have been born in two-child families is remarkable), and he dreamed he would become an artist. Pressed to become a clergyman, he resisted.

Finding and defending his vocation

But when he was sixteen, and it became clear his elder brother could not manage the family’s corn and coal trade, Constable reluctantly signed on. For several years he studied the business side of the Stour’s watermills, locks, barges, and towpaths. He sketched whenever he could. When he was 20 he met Sir George Beaumont, a painter and patron who would later establish the National Academy.

Paul Johnson describes how Constable fell in love with a landscape painting by Rubens –

Constable loved it so much that, when he stayed with Sir George, he was allowed to lug it into his bedroom so that it was the first thing he saw when he awoke in the morning.

Beaumont reignited Constable's passion for painting, but there seemed little Constable could do about it. At 22 he dejectedly faced the fact he was tied to his father’s business.

Young John Constable

John Constable in 1799

Stubborn struggle

Two years later, in 1799, he was unexpectedly released. His younger brother joined the firm, and his parents gave Constable a small allowance to study art in London. With the help of Beaumont and a few friends, he entered the Royal Academy School and began to copy master paintings, drawings, and prints. By 1802, he was making artistic progress, but little in the way of income, and his parents urged him to make some money.

Constable painted a few portraits, but stubbornly turned down a job teaching drawing at a military school. “It would have been a death blow to all my prospects of perfection in the Art I love,” he wrote a friend (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

After ten years, his parents were increasingly worried. He had exhibited at the Royal Academy. He was exploring interesting techniques, but he had not been accepted as an associate of the Academy and he was not earning a living. About this time he fell in love.

He was thirty-three. Maria Bicknell was twenty-one. Her family was implacably opposed to their marriage. Constable’s mother advised him to pursue his goals with Christian fortitude, patience, and diligence, and for heaven’s sake earn the money he needed to get married.

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Constable presented this drawing of the church to Maria’s grandfather, who was rector. It did little to change the old man’s mind about Constable's suitability as a husband for his granddaughter.

East Bergholt Church, 1811. Watercolour on paper.
The Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, UK.

Constable loved the country and had always wanted to paint country life. Though this was the least profitable art form then available, he decided to stake his life and his love on it. It was an astonishing decision, but it made emotional sense. He wanted to praise what he loved. As CS Lewis unerringly remarked, “It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.”

For love of beauty

Constable began to paint outdoors. His studies intensified. His brushwork became “urgent” (DNB).

He was determined to become an associate of the Royal Academy because this would help him sell his work. In 1810 his application did not receive a single vote. He was still struggling in 1814. He wrote his uncle, who had sent him a kind but critical letter, “I know I have great deficiencies and that I have not yet, in a single instance, realised my ideas of art.” Ouch.

Study of an elm tree

It's estimated that genius needs 10,000 hours of work to reach success. Constable created thousands of studies.
Painting is but another word for feeling,
he said.

Constable pushed on, always working, always trying to improve, but he got nowhere with the Royal Academy whose approval he needed in order to sell his paintings. The Academy regarded his small rural scenes as almost beneath notice. It mattered little to them that over years of dedicated work "he had amassed an almost encyclopaedic visual record of whatever caught his eye” – animals, men and women, trees, homes, churches, boats, clouds, rivers (DNB).

Maria

Maria, painted by Constable

Married love

He was still not earning much, but after seven years Constable persuaded Maria that they should defy her family, and marry. Aged forty, he had finally achieved a private happiness that would help to unleash all his artistic power and passion. In 1817 they had their first child, and he “was seen almost as often in his father's arms as in his mother's: ‘His fondness for children,' a friend wrote, 'exceeded, indeed, that of any man I ever knew’” (DNB). Meanwhile his mastery is revealed in the painting Wivenhoe Park, (above).

Daring breakthrough

The members of the Academy had not been interested in the natural truth and the marvellous movements of nature in Constable’s paintings, but they were about to learn to care. In 1819, Constable made a daring gesture that transfixed them. Once again he painted a rural scene and brought it to the Academy, hoping it would be exhibited.

The painting showed a white horse being ferried by three men across a river with a farm scene on the opposite shore, and cows standing in the water under a lowering sky. The energetic brushwork for which he was becoming known, his fidelity to humble country scenes, and the truthful affection that suffused his paintings were all there. There was just one sublime difference.

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Detail from The White Horse

The painting was six feet by four feet. The Academy was staggered, and elected him an associate member.

The White Horse was the first of Constable's six-footers, and was based on an original breakthrough in his working methods. He began as usual by sketching outdoors. Then, to work on the large canvas, he came indoors, creating an intermediary, full-scale, 6 x 4-foot oil sketch to test and rework composition, colours, and light before advancing to paint his canvas.

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A Scene on the River Stour, The White Horse,
Frick Collection, New York.
The detail above shows the white horse and men on the left.

The six-footers

The exhibition of his six-footers brought Constable new clients and recognition, particularly in France, where his paintings fascinated Gericault and influenced Delacroix. (Later they would inspire the painters of the Hudson River School and the Impressionists Monet and Pissarro.)

Moving his family to Hampstead Heath so his wife could be more comfortable, Constable made numerous studies of the skies. (To his great friend Fisher he referred to this as ‘skying’.) He was aware of Luke Howard’s scientific studies of clouds – Howard had recently named all the clouds and their associated weather patterns. Uniquely, Constable painted by uniting his scientific understanding with the eye of his heart.

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Landscape: Noon - ‘The Hay Wain’ -1821, another six-footer,
the Tate, London

Fame and desolation

For awhile, Constable was more famous in France than in England. The English wondered at his bold impasto, loose handling of paint, and unorthodox colours. The Academy still declined to make him a full member. His sales were barely keeping up with his expenses. A seventh child was born to the Constables in 1827. Their marriage had given them the joy felt by true companions, but Maria became ill with TB.

In 1828 Maria died, leaving Constable devastated, and with seven children under the age of eleven. Three days after Maria died he wrote, I shall never feel again as I have felt. The face of the world is totally changed to me.

Hadleigh Castle ruins and sea

Hadleigh Castle, 1829, expresses Constable's desolation at his wife's death.

Yale Center for British Art, New Haven

A few months later Constable was elected a full member of the Academy. It no longer mattered to him.

In the next decade, supported by an inheritance, Constable cared for his children. He published mezzotints, explained his ideas and served as director of the Artists' General Benevolent Institution, which helped poor artists.

He continued to paint, but he did not sell his paintings. Like the young man of 20, who had lugged a painting he loved into his bedroom, he preferred to keep his paintings around him.

In 1837, returning from a charitable errand, Constable became ill, and died the next morning. The cause was not determined.

Future generations

Constable's children inherited much of his life’s work. Because he had sold so little during his lifetime, they were able to bequeath his paintings and drawings to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Museum, the National Gallery, and the Royal Academy.

Just as the boy Constable was inspired by a painting, his paintings have given profound pleasure to generations of young artists and arts appreciators. Wonderful as they are in reproduction, they are far more wonderful in person.

English bulldog puppy

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Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass